January 2, 2013

Men Who Are Caregivers Is Subject of Talk and Support Group at Senior Research Center

The Reverend Peter K. Stimpson spoke recently with Susan Hoskins, the executive director of Princeton Senior Resource Center (PSRC), about collaborating on a program for clients of PSRC. Reverend Stimpson, the director of Trinity Counseling Service, knew he wanted to do something that would make a difference.

“I asked her what she felt was an important issue, and right away she answered, ‘men who are caregivers,’” he says. “She had no idea that I had given a talk at the University of Texas in September, on just that subject.”

It is a topic that Reverend Stimpson knows well. He cared for his wife for more than two decades before she died in October 2004 after her body rejected a liver transplant. The emotional and physical toll that he experienced is familiar to anyone who is the principal caregiver of an ailing spouse, parent, or other loved one. And for men, it can be particularly grueling because of stereotypes that define them in a certain light.

“Men have a tendency to say, ‘I’m fine,’ instead of talking about their feelings,” Reverend Stimpson says. “It’s hard for them to allow other people to help and to try and not be so self-reliant. It’s just not a role they are familiar with.”

“Men Do Care” is the title of a talk Reverend Stimpson will give at 10 a.m. on Saturday, January 12 at PSRC, located in the Suzanne Patterson Center behind Borough Hall. The program will be followed a few weeks later by the formation of a support group, which will meet weekly on Monday evenings from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Participation is free.

While younger men tend to be more comfortable with the idea of being a caregiver, older men — baby boomers and beyond — often have more trouble taking on the role.

“I have found that younger men are a little more able to talk about their feelings than older men,” says Reverend Stimpson. “Older men have a tendency to not only not talk, but to not want help. They want to bring the wife to every appointment, do all the work around the house, and everything else. What happens is that they begin to burn out. As they burn out, they exhibit a whole bunch of other symptoms they don’t want to talk about much. They get angry with the person they’re caring for. Typically, they will drink too much. And they’ll get depressed. They even sometimes fantasize about their wife’s death, or having an affair. But it’s all because they just haven’t really dealt with it.”

When his own wife was sick and unable to climb stairs, Reverend Stimpson bought a one-story home in an “over 55” community. But when it came time to move in, his wife was in the hospital and he had to move by himself. Though he had people helping him, he was still doing most of the work.

“One night I was carrying in bag after bag of stuff. And my pants fell off,” he says, chuckling at the memory. “I had lost 20 pounds and I didn’t even know it. I began to realize just how hard it is to be a caregiver. And I realized that some of the ways in which men face it are quite different from the way women face it.”

When Reverend Stimpson began to research the topic of men as caregivers, he found that there was little written. “There are a ton of books that deal with women as caregivers, but not men,” he says. “I was a bit surprised. I could see that this was important.”

As director of Trinity Counseling Service, which is an outgrowth of Princeton’s Trinity Church, Reverend Stimpson oversees an agency with 24 psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and clergy of different denominations, treating about 400 people a week. He has found that support groups work well for men who are caregivers. Having been in the situation himself, he knows how to make them feel comfortable enough to start talking.

“I won’t say to a guy, ‘You’ve got to share your feelings more,’” he says. “What I will do is help them realize that doing is caring by getting them to talk about their duties. Then I slip into what they’re feeling. So they might start to talk about that while sharing all of the different tasks they are doing. Part of the reason for this group is that everyone has the same issue, but everyone has different solutions to that issue. So even if I’m shy and saying nothing, I’m learning something. That’s typical group dynamics.”

The talk and support group are co-sponsored by the PSRC and Trinity Counseling Service, and made possible due to a grant from the Sally Foss and James Scott Hill Foundation. Reverend Stimpson is hoping to get participants through advertisements, church bulletins, and the PSRC newsletter.

“I’m not expecting a gigantic turnout,” he said. “But if I can get some people to show up, that will be good. I know they’re out there.”